Agnosticism & Atheism
IS THERE A GOD?
That's the age-old question, isn't it? You're probably well-aware that this discussion has gone on for centuries, even millenia. We're not going to get into all the back-and-forth in this spot, but if you are interested in reading through the historical arguments you can go here.
For our purposes, we just want to make some basic observations about the point of view that is inclined to believe that there is no supreme spiritual being in the universe. This falls into two main perspectives, Agnosticism and Atheism.
Agnosticism (which literally means no-know) is a direct and logical outgrowth of a culture that has embraced empiricism as its primary truth source. While REASON for centuries held out hope of leading us on a sure and certain pathway to ultimate knowledge, Immanuel Kant dis-railed that quest. His Critique of Pure Reason convinced the philosophical world that there are limits to what we can know by way of reason. However, EMPIRICISM was waiting in the wings to take Reason's place. As with the origin of RATIONALISM, the EMPIRICAL (or scientific) method goes all the way back to Aristotle, and believes that the way to have the surest knowledge of reality is to examine all of the particular things in the world, figure out their nature and purpose, and then put all of that information together. Ultimate truth is known by synthesizing the information about all of the individual parts that we can observe. That sounds good, but in reality the realm of life is so large that we never finish examining the parts. On top of that, studies of individual things produce one conclusion at times and at other times a different one. Just in my lifetime I've read that scientific studies have concluded that drinking coffee is bad for me, good for me, then bad for me, and now good for me. Either we don't yet know for sure about coffee, or we can't know.
This leaves me in a state of suspended animation until the final verdict is in, which may be never. In other words, I am forced to be agnostic about whether drinking coffee is good or bad for me. Since I (and most people) have a hard time living in a state of suspended animation, in practicality I forsake EMPIRICISM as a basis for making decisions and become an EXISTENTIALIST (I find meaning for my life in drinking coffee) and a HEDONIST (I like coffee and it makes me feel good). I WANT to drink it, I LIKE to drink it, and therefore I CHOOSE to drink coffee because it provides something to my life that I prefer. That, essentially is the philosophical atmosphere of our age, and it is a direct and natural result of trying to establish ultimate truth by empiricism.
From this discussion you can probably see that Agnosticism can be quite an attractive way to approach the world. It sets me up to shrug my shoulders about the 'big questions' of life (I can't or don't know about them anyway) and just do what I want to do. This is very appealing, especially when I'm young and quite eager for any rationalization that will justify throwing off whatever moral constraints are standing in the way of what I want to do. As I grow older, world-weary, jaded, cynical and often deeply wounded by the consequences of my actions, I begin to want something that provides deeper meaning and better answers to a life that I'm beginning to realize doesn't last forever.
So, while Agnosticism is a natural and logical mindset for one who lives in a dominantly empirical-based culture, it shuts down the search for ultimate meaning that has proved to be one of the richest and perhaps the defining part of human existence through the ages. If you consider yourself to be an Agnostic, we would just ask that you allow yourself to be open to the possibility that since the human desire for ultimate meaning in life is so strong, there may be a way to it besides the empirical method (or existentialism or hedonism, for that matter).
A final kicker here is that, aside from all of the experiential problems with Agnosticism, it is logically self-defeating. It is a logical contradiction to say that we KNOW that we CANNOT KNOW something (the hard form of Agnosticism), which leaves us with only the soft form --- we DON'T KNOW whether there is a God, and that is merely an acknowledgement that we need to find a way to gain that knowledge.
Atheism (literally, no-god) is a position held by people who are convinced that no being exists who would fit the description of God. This sense of confidence in the non-existence of God may have come from considering philosophical arguments or scientific data. It also may have come from an emotional reaction to encounters with some religious environment, or from a need to disavow God in order to justify crossing moral boundaries. In other words, it may be an 'honest' Atheism where one has struggled to the best of his ability with intellectual questions, or it may be a 'dishonest' Atheism, where it is really just a cover for anger or moral abandonment.
In the latter case, just as with the Agnostic above, one's conviction about Atheism is likely to run thin as the consequences of life-choices and a desire for deeper meaning grow with the progression of years. This form of Atheism is similar to the common Atheistic criticism of religion. It provides a 'cover' in the same way Atheists accuse religion of being a 'crutch'.
The first type of Atheism is different, however. We're calling this 'honest Atheism', and, if we can get around the tendency for mutual hostility, we could have a very engaging discussion sorting through all the various arguments for-and-against the existence of God. While that's not our purpose here, there are many places where vast amounts of material can be found on either side.
We will just make this observation. We assume that the 'honest Atheist' would not mind discovering that God DOES exist. We assume that, given a choice, the 'honest Atheist' would be glad to know that an all-powerful benevolent God does lie back of the universe. This Atheist's issue is not against the IDEA of God, but against what he perceives to be a FALSE IDEA of God. That is, he is convinced that people are believing in a delusion, that in some cases this delusion is maliciously propagated and used to manipulate the 'believers', and that we will be much better off facing reality squarely rather than avoiding it. Laying aside the possibility that it can be very appealing to some people to realize that by ditching the idea of a supreme being, then by default THEY become the supreme being, we will assume the best of intentions for now.
Ironically, this puts the 'honest Atheist' and the Apostle Paul in pretty much the same attitude. Just as the honest skeptic simply wants us to face reality, Paul was very adamant about being honest. He says, "But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:13-19, NIV)
When it comes down to it, the 'honest Atheist' and the 'honest Christian' really want the same thing --- we both sincerely want to see reality for what it is. The next words out of his mouth revealed Paul's perspective of what is true (this is the man who, remember, originally had set out to put Christians to death, because he thought it was all a fabrication) . . .
. . . "but now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:20) (I inserted the emphasis where, I'm very inclined to think, Paul intended it to be)
We both want to squarely face reality. The question is, how can we be confident that we're doing that, rather than being deluded? Paul had come to a deep conviction, not only of the reality of God's existence, but of the truth of the whole story about Jesus, and especially His resurrection. Atheists have come to a conviction that it is all a fabrication. How are we to know? If you would like to pursue this thought, follow on to the 'Skeptical About Jesus' page.